Hills Like White Elephants redux
As Alba turned to place the freshly-wiped bottle back in its place on the shelf, she heard a shuffle of chairs outside. The low afternoon sun shone in blinding rays scattered across the floor through a bamboo curtain, and she could not quite make out who had arrived on the patio. Though not a popular stop on the tourist circuit, the bar nonetheless attracted a reliable few who paused at the junction between Barcelona and Madrid. In the valley of the Ebro, the nearby white hills provided some pleasant shade from the southern sun.
Even before she made her way around the bar on the way to the patio, she heard a man’s voice with a heavy American accent call out “dos cervezas.”
“Big ones?” she called back.
“Yes. Two big ones.”
She went back around the bar and poured two tall beers for the tourists. She picked up two felt pads that would soak up the condensation from the thick, cold glasses and made her way through the curtain to the table. Placing the pads and glasses on the table in front of a man and woman, she looked at them both. The girl did not appear Spanish and did not acknowledge her beer as it was put in front of her. Her gaze ventured out to the far white hills and her eyes penetrated the distance without seeing.
As she turned and walked back through the curtain she heard the girl say, “They look like white elephants.”
Soon a chatter of conversation filled the patio and Alba returned to her cleaning tasks inside the bar.
“Have you begun lunch yet?”
“No, I’m finishing up the bottles right now. Shouldn’t be too long,” she said to the young man who stood in the doorway from the small room off the back of the bar.
“I’m hungry. Try to be quick about it.”
“I’ll heat up the stew as soon as I’m done.”
The skin on the man’s brow wrinkled as he hesitated a brief moment before looking at the brown floorboards and turning back into the small room.
She breathed a deep breath as she stared at the shining neck of the bottle in her hand, the stickiness polished off with a clean white towel. A final brown bottle placed at the end of the shelf next to the others, she carefully folded the towel and set it next to the small sink.
Just as she walked toward the small back room she heard “Listen,” called from the patio.
She came out to the patio and said, “Four reales.”
“We want two Anis del Toro,” the man said.
The man and woman discussed the matter for a moment and decided yes, they would like water with their anise.
Their conversation continued as the two liqueurs were placed on the table, and she returned through the bamboo curtain.
After the stew bubbled in a pleasing steam on the stove, she poured two fresh lemonades for the man and herself. They began to eat but she left the door into the bar open because the couple had not yet finished their drinks. Dinner might be interrupted with another call from the American man. There were still fifteen minutes until the train to Madrid came, and she kept an ear open for his voice.
Her eyes scanned the man’s hairline as he chewed and she asked, “Did you finish the repairs out back?”
Not lifting his eyes from the steaming bowl, he replied, “Almost. A couple of things left to do, and we can begin setting it up inside.”
“I think a new side bar was a good idea. You have good ideas for the business.”
The young man didn’t reply. His face remained blank and a long silence was broken with another call from behind the bamboo curtain.
“I’ll scream,” the girl said.
She put down the two glasses of beer and stood quietly as the man fished around for the correct change for the bill.
“That train is coming in five minutes,” she announced.
The girl, looking intently at some trees in the distant hillside, asked, “What did she say?”
The American man told her and the girl gave a bright smile to the woman, as a thank you for the reminder.
She returned inside the bar, glad to be done with the couple and able to return to her dinner with the young man.
“Are you going out with your friends tonight?” she asked.
“Some music is playing at José’s,” he replied.
“Is that girl going with you?”
A small smile lifted Alba’s cheeks as she inquired, but the young man kept his eyes on the warm bowl and his face did not change with the questions.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure. Why?”
“I’m just asking. She seems very nice. Do what you like. I want you to enjoy yourself.”
“I cannot enjoy myself here. Have you talked to Auntie like I asked? I don’t want to be with the same people every night in the same little place—you know that.”
With this the man lifted his eyes and met hers.
“I worry about you in Madrid. You have never lived a place like that and even with my sister I would worry. I want you to be happy, but who would take care of our bar? I cannot do it all myself.”
A deep sigh escaped as he stared at the bowl.
“Would you like more lemonade?”
A soft clattering sounded as the bamboo curtain lifted and scattered in the breeze from the patio. The young man drank deep from his cold glass and the familiar train rumble became louder from outside the bar.
She returned to the patio to clear away the glasses from the couple and found the girl still sitting at the table.
The American man walked through the barroom after disposing of their bags at the train platform and entered the patio.
“Do you feel better?” he asked.
“I feel fine,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”
© FMR 10/12/2011
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